State Attorney General Jeff Landry asked the U.S. Justice Department on Wednesday to clarify whether the federal government forced New Orleans to become a so-called “sanctuary city” under the terms of a consent decree intended to reform the New Orleans Police Department.
“Sanctuary city” is a label for cities with policies or laws limiting local law enforcement’s cooperation with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in locating and expelling undocumented immigrants.
Landry sent a letter to U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch asking her to explain whether the Justice Department signed off on a recently announced city policy that bars New Orleans police officers from assisting in “immigration enforcement,” except under limited circumstances.
He suggested that city leaders “may have adopted a policy that goes well beyond what was required under the consent decree” Mayor Mitch Landrieu signed with the Justice Department in 2012.
As written, he added, the new policy “mandates that public officials violate their oath of office.”
“I can only presume that a miscommunication occurred between the U.S. Department of Justice and the city of New Orleans,” Landry wrote. “Presumably, the U.S. Department of Justice would not enter into a consent decree that would compel the city of New Orleans to violate federal law.”
The Justice Department did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.
The Louisiana Legislature is considering a bill that would bar municipalities and state agencies from adopting “sanctuary” policies and remove their ability to borrow money for major infrastructure projects if they have such policies.
House Bill 1148, sponsored by state Rep. Valarie Hodges, R-Denham Springs, would require Landry to weigh in on whether an agency or political subdivision has run afoul of state law “by adopting a sanctuary policy.”
Landry referred to the Hodges bill in his letter to Lynch, saying its recent passage by a House committee “reflects the strong opposition the people of our great state have for sanctuary city policies.”
He asked Lynch to respond to his inquiries within 15 business days. Otherwise, Landry wrote, “I will presume that you agree the consent decree does not mandate the broad sanctuary city language currently in the NOPD policy.”
The 2012 consent decree, which called for sweeping policy changes within the Police Department, forbade officers from taking “law enforcement action on the basis of actual or perceived immigration status.”
It also barred officers from questioning victims and witnesses of crime about their immigration status, and it required the NOPD to develop a plan “to provide all individuals within the city essential police services, regardless of immigration status.”
The Police Department rolled out a policy in February that specifically prohibits officers from assisting ICE, except when executing criminal warrants or responding to a “direct threat to life or public safety.”
“Immigration is a federal issue, not a local issue,” Police Superintendent Michael Harrison said in announcing the measure.
The Justice Department was apprised of the new policy, as were local ICE representatives, according to a letter Landrieu wrote in early March to Lynch and U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson. In fact, it was drafted in partnership with the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division.
Landrieu asked the Justice Department and Homeland Security to speak up if “any officials within your respective agencies feel that this policy does not fully comply with any federal law.”
Hayne Rainey, a City Hall spokesman, said Wednesday that the Police Department’s immigration policy “does not make New Orleans a ‘sanctuary city.’ ”
“NOPD will continue to work with federal immigration officials when there is a criminal warrant or following any crime,” Rainey said in a statement, “but their priority is going after violent criminals, not raiding churches and markets to intimidate immigrant communities or working with ICE to rip mothers from their young children.”
Landry, however, wrote that he believes the NOPD’s new policy is “in direct violation of the law.” He suggested that officials following the policy could be committing malfeasance in office and obstruction of justice.
“The problem with allowing illegals to walk through our country is that we cannot control who is coming in. We know that ISIS and terrorists and radical Islamists out there want to come and inflict pain in our country,” Landry said in a telephone interview, using an acronym for the Islamic State group.
The Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office also has a policy of refusing to honor immigration detainer requests at the city’s jail except for inmates accused of the most egregious crimes.
Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.